Where Are the Activists as Austerity Bites? They Have Been Beaten Back
Protesters face violence, arrest and serious charges. Only the brave dare face this savage suppression
First they came for the students. This week, 12 vanloads of police arrived at Sussex University, in collaboration with management, to evict students who had been occupying a room on campus for eight weeks. They had been taking a stand against privatisation of services at their university, creating a militant "pop-up union" and attracting support from all over the country: they had to be got rid of. Photographs from the day show police in antiseptic yellow uniforms swarming in as if to disinfect a wound in the body politic where the rage was bleeding through.
The suppression of student protest by the British state has been savage and efficient over the past three years. The students of Sussex were brave even to make the attempt. They knew all too well that they were risking arrest, serious criminal charges and physical violence from police and hired security, and that is what happened. It's what always happens when a government uses force to suppress radicalism.
Right now, as millions of people stare down the barrel of job losses, benefits sanctions, destitution and desperation and the rich are given tax cuts, I hear a lot of people asking why there isn't more resistance going on. Well, here's why. There was resistance, and it was brutally and systematically put down. The students, the street-organising anti-cuts campaigners, the Occupy movement. When people speak about the Occupy camps and anti-austerity protests of 2010-12, it is with a tone of regret, as if somehow those grassroots movements just fizzled out because those involved didn't know what they were doing. On the contrary: they were cleared out, arrested and beaten back by police, just like the students at Sussex.
In Tory Britain, as the cuts kick in, even the most peaceful protests are put down as a warning to the rest of us. Last November, Bethan Tichborne, a 28-year-old teaching assistant, appeared at a public event in Oxfordshire and calmly told David Cameron that he had "blood on his hands". She was referring to the prime minister's decision to take away vital social support from people with disabilities, a policy that has already cost lives.
Tichborne was grabbed, tackled to the ground and restrained during her arrest, as Cameron continued to speak: "The police officers on top of me either couldn't or wouldn't hear me," she wrote on her blog. "I was crying and bleeding, I couldn't properly breathe.". Two weeks ago she was convicted of causing "harassment, alarm and distress" and fined more than a month's wages. The message is clear: whether or not a protest is peaceful and legal is entirely up to the police and judiciary to decide, so if you want to play it safe, stay at home and sign a petition.
Last month, two of the students involved in the Parliament Square protests of December 2010, Alfie Meadows and Zak King, were acquitted of violent disorder. This is a charge used almost exclusively against political protesters that carries a sentence of five years in prison. Meadows, King and their friends spent two years fighting to overturn the charges, prevented from speaking out by the courts process.
It seems a curious coincidence that the police singled out Meadows for scapegoating as a violent extremist, given that on the protest in question, as the police attacked students in Parliament Square, he received a blow to the head that required emergency brain surgery. He still has a hand-length scar across his skull. Even now, I am obliged to say that it's not been proved in court that Meadows' near-fatal brain bleed was caused by a police baton, because if I don't I might get the Guardian sued.
Sadly, many of the liberal-minded folk now wondering aloud where all the anger on the streets has gone were the same people who condemned the students and anti-cuts protesters for being just a bit too noisy, too rowdy, too "violent". As soon as the frustrated kids of Britain and their allies started smashing up bus stops and lighting bonfires outside Tory HQ, that was too much: throw the selfish brats in prison, teach them to mind their manners. First they came for the students. Now they've come for the rest of us, who will speak out?
Any government trying to push through austerity against the will of a large proportion of the population is going to have to rely on force to deal with dissent. That's exactly what this government, which had the support of just one in seven of the population even before it started tearing up the welfare state, has done. New movements to resist austerity must expect to meet the same wall of state violence as soon as they become effective, because that's how the Tories operate. It's how they've always operated. And shame on us, even in these cowardly times, if we don't support those with the courage to take a stand.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2013